A self-confessed roguelite, I, Dracula: Genesis checks all the boxes of every indie developer’s favourite genre descriptor. Within you’ll find procedurally generated environments, permadeath for the character alongside continual incremental progression for the player, and an initially insurmountable difficulty level. So far, so generic, but the lure for me was the titular neckbiter.
I went into I, Dracula’s Early Access without reading up on it beforehand and was expecting a Gothic setting full of spooky castles lit by flickering torches. I was therefore more than a little surprised by the sci-fi wasteland that greeted me. This isn’t Transylvania, baby. Instead, we have a post-apocalyptic world set in 420 A.C. (After Cataclysm).
Your character is a Hunter spawned from a vat in a mysterious lab (great way of rationalising the multiple characters you’ll get through) and you are one of the few ‘humans’ with the skill to survive in the Hell that is outside. At first you’ll have no specific abilities or class, but as you progress a truly dizzying number of options become available.
The brief optional tutorial introduces you to the basics, but you’ll still be unlocking new systems after multiple hours of play. This may seem overwhelmingly complex, but the slow unlock of new mechanics enables you to learn and adjust to each and, once unlocked, they are available from the beginning of your next run.
Admittedly, I found the few few hours a little underwhelming, but at least some of that is my own fault. For some odd reason I had convinced myself that playing with mouse and keyboard was the way forward, but the controls work a lot better on a controller.
My above expectations of Carpathian castles and Eastern European aesthetics were instead met by a lurid and colourful art style that has a grotesque beauty all of its own. The numerous enemies are all distinctive – which helps you learn their behaviours in order to survive – and bosses are on an impressive scale. The isometric viewpoint immediately brought me back to classic home computer titles like SabreWulf and Head Over Heels too, but this is very much a modern take on roguelites. Your first few runs will quickly end in defeat, but everything unlock adds to your arsenal for the next try.
You start with a subweapon with unlimited ammo. These are often surprisingly effective, although the ever-present spectre of RNG means that you never know what kind of pistol you’ll get. Luckily you can often find alternatives throughout the levels, so can change if you need, but I found that a good run typically began with having a good pistol from the off.
Alongside your trusty sidearm, you’ll find up to three other weapons at different tiers, once you’ve unlocked them of course. These range from lasers to shotguns to katanas, and all have strengths and drawbacks. Once you build up your armoury and have a range of different weapons at your disposal, there is a refreshing degree of strategy involved here.
As well as weapons, your armoury will also include magic spells, special weapons, consumables, and relics. Each one of these will need to be unlocked through arena-like combat once found so there is a real sense of risk and reward in whether to unlock a potentially useful ability that might lead to you being killed. The game quickly settles into a satisfying loop of finding new items and unlocking them until you feel you have enough to tackle each level’s boss.
The relatively small levels are made up of interlinked islands with the boss clearly demarcated so you can choose when to take them on. The important thing to remember is that the items and skills carry over and are available to be found by later characters, so no death is a waste – apart from the occasional epic fail where you achieve precisely nothing. Once this sinks in, you quickly start to become more gung-ho, taking on challenges and attempting bosses safe in the knowledge that you are contributing to the greater good. The flipside of this, however, is that new enemies get added which make life that little bit harder.
Defeating a boss rewards you with a boss key that allows you to leave the zone and be airlifted away, only to be sent to a new set of islands. This rapid sense of development means that there is little time to reflect and really establishes a rhythm of looting and shooting. Combat is rarely easy, but the evasive jump becomes essential – I’d recommend playing with a character with the acro-jump ability once you’ve unlocked it.
As you progress, different characters become available and new starting classes open up. These range from standard soldier or barbarian types to more esoteric options such as the elf or the priest, all of whom have their own strengths and weaknesses. The ease with which you can start a new run after failure means that it’s well worth experimenting with different classes to find one that you like. Oh, and one top tip, make sure you keep explosive weapons if you find them (which includes the awesome shotgun) as the ability to destroy metal crates can really help when you need gold or health.
After pushing through the generic sounding roguelite mechanics, something about I, Dracula: Genesis has really clicked for me. There are just so many options available and things to unlock that life never becomes predictable or boring. I’m not sure whether I, Dracula: Genesis has cured my roguelite fatigue, but as the game heads into Steam Early Access this week, I’m certainly ready to take another bite.